Four years ago, New Jersey anime convention AnimeNEXT made the big decision to move from the Meadowlands Convention Center in Secaucus to a bigger space further from New York City: the Garden State Exhibit Center in Somerset. Now the Garden State Exhibit Center can no longer contain the yearly growth of AnimeNEXT. The 2013 event was bigger than ever, with over 10,000 attendees (likely closer to 11,000 by my estimation) as compared to last year's 9,800. "Growing pains" would be putting it lightly; AnimeNEXT is obviously too large for the convention center and nearby hotels, and there were clear consequences at this year's con.
Navigation was a nightmare at AnimeNEXT 2013. Large crowds were constantly milling around the small hallways on either side of the DoubleTree hotel, which housed all of the panels. Of course, it didn't help that it was rainy on Friday and Saturday, forcing many attendees inside (and squandering the location's beautiful outdoor areas). In one extreme case, staff had to close off the hallway that provided access to the large ballrooms (Panel 1 and Main Events A and B) on Saturday because it was over capacity. That's right, there were so many people in the hallway (not just the rooms themselves) that it was unsafe to let anybody else in. This was phenomenally inconvenient for lots of attendees, as the hallway provided access to three rooms containing a wide mix of programming. To be clear, however, I think the con staff did their best given the circumstances, and it's really a case of needing a much larger space rather than poor planning.
Panel rooms had consistent space problems as well. The DoubleTree is cursed with an uneven distribution of room sizes; the first floor contains three large ballrooms and the second floor has four small conference rooms. As a result, panels in the large ballrooms consistently did NOT fill, while panels in the small conference rooms were almost always filled to capacity. Exacerbating this problem was the staff's policy of performing a full room clear and lineup for every panel. There are valid reasons to perform a room clear (preventing squatting is one of them), but by instituting them for every single panel in rooms too small to contain even half of the people in line, staff inadvertently created needless inconveniences for people who wanted to see a string of panels in the same room.
But hey, those long lines for panels were also a good thing in a way, since they represented AnimeNEXT's continuing dedication to excellent fan panel programming. Our buddy Vinnie (from All Geeks Considered) was in charge of panels this year, and he pulled together a really nice mix of topics, from a panel about anime "Pilots and Precursors" to another on "Respect and Positivity in Cosplay." In fact, in a first for me at AnimeNEXT, there were very few points when there wasn't a panel I wanted to attend going on, and when there was, there were often multiple interesting panels taking place simultaneously. It's a testament to the great panel lineup that I barely made it to half the events I was interesting in attending. (For more detailed discussion of the panels, check out our upcoming panel reports.)
AnimeNEXT has had a somewhat spotty history with guests, but this year delivered just the kinds of guests that I like — Japanese anime creators. Namely, Sayo Yamamoto (director of Lupin the Third: The Woman Called Fujiko Mine and Michiko & Hatchin) and Hiroshi Shimizu (key animator on Fujiko, Michiko & Hatchin, and lots of other stuff) were in attendance, and a combined four hours spent with them over the course of the weekend (two panels, a press interview, and a signing) really drove home how nice it is to have prestigious anime creators at a convention like AnimeNEXT. The con's relatively small size means that Japanese guest events are poorly attended, which is bad for the con, but good for the few people who do show up, as we get to ask a lot of questions and spend a lot of time having conversations with awesome directors and animators.
The convention also made the bold choice of inviting Mike Toole (anime blogger and host of Anime News Network's The Mike Toole Show) as a guest. Mike's got a lot of name recognition among bloggers, con veterans, and his online audience, but he hardly has the sort of star power of an anime voice actor. However, his panels are some of the best out there, and he's made a name for himself at Anime Boston, where he routinely fills huge ballrooms with panels like "Dubs that Time Forgot" and "Anime Hell." Unfortunately Mike's panels weren't as popular at AnimeNEXT — though they were just as good — which I think is only because it's his first year at the con. Give him a few more years and NEXT attendees will finally realize that they should get on line early to see Mike's stuff.
I did my share of wandering the Dealers Room and AnimeNEXT's charming Artists Alley, both of which were basically the same as last year. [INK'S NOTE: I thought Artists Alley had a tad more craft representation and noted the presence of some of more interesting prints, such as the 1940's yaoi booth by Grave Impressions.] Anime distribution giant FUNimation, however, didn't have a booth in the AnimeNEXT Dealer's Room, a conspicuous absence since they were there last year and there was no conflicting convention on the same weekend. I stopped at Vertical's table to pick up volume 1 of The Flowers of Evil (check out Ink and David's impressions of the anime!) and grabbed some $5 manga at my go-to dealer, Sci-Fi Continuum, but not much else jumped out at me in either Dealers' or Artists' Alley. [INK'S NOTE: I also stopped by Vertical, where I picked up a copy of Utsubora, and elsewhere found a Penguin No. 3 keychain (Mawaru Penguindrum) to keep my dangling Clara (Princess Jellyfish) company.]
It's no secret that I'm a little bit of an AnimeNEXT fanboy. The con's proximity to my house makes it accessible, and its mix of small-con spunk and big-con organization make it a really enjoyable way to kick off my summer. This year's problems are largely a symptom of a healthy, growing convention. I have no doubts that a larger space will solve most of the issues, but unfortunately NEXT is slated to be back in the Garden State Exhibit Center next year (though I hear rumors that they're looking for a new space for 2015). Knowing that, I've got my fingers crossed for some creative reorganization in 2014 to make better use of what space the con does have. I'm not worried, though. If there's anything I've learned in nine years of attending AnimeNEXT, it's that this is a nimble con that's quite good at changing itself to fit new circumstances.
Click here for more coverage of AnimeNEXT 2013.